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Francis Howell School Board to consider banning books and discussion on gender identity

Transgender teenagers and their allies speak out against a proposed policy that would force transgender students to use bathrooms based on the sex assigned on their birth certificate during a Francis Howell School Board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at the Francis Howell School District Administration Building in O’Fallon, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Transgender teenagers and their allies speak out against a proposed policy that would force transgender students to use bathrooms based on the sex assigned on their birth certificate during a Francis Howell School Board meeting last October in O’Fallon, Mo.

Francis Howell School District board members plan to introduce measures prohibiting classroom discussions on gender identity and require the board to approve every book purchased or donated in the district.

The board at its meeting Thursday will consider several proposals, including one that would allow anyone who lives in the district to call for bans on particular books and classroom materials.

The measures follow the board's monthslong effort to modify the district's Black history and literature courses, which ended when the board in March approved revised curricula that removed social justice standards developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Some parents and teachers are outraged at the board’s latest moves.

“Instead of trying to create policy and procedure and change their mindset and thinking to best align with what the community wants so that they can best represent the community, instead, what they're trying to do is to limit access to information by the community,” said Heather Fleming, Missouri Equity Education Partnership's executive director and a Francis Howell parent. “That is shameful, it’s anti-democratic.”

School board members who support the proposals could not be reached for comment.

Adam Bertrand and Randy Cook, the board's president and vice president, will introduce the bills, which could receive final votes by mid-July. The proposed policy changes could lead the district to ban books and discipline teachers who advocate for “social policy issues.”

Jamie Martin, a Francis Howell parent and member of the Francis Howell Forward Political Action Committee, said board members are intruding on curriculum standards set by educators. She said the board's 5-2 conservative majority wants to overlook a history of oppression and “protect students from progress.”

“The bulk of the changes expand the power of these politically elected officials of the school,” Martin said, “and then limit the autonomy of students and teachers. We're giving more power to an oversight body that has no requirement to have any education or training.”

Steven Blair, a candidate for the Francis Howell School District Board of Education, speaks during a meeting of the board on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at the District Administration Office in O’Fallon. The Board voted to approve curriculum, including Black Literature and English Language Arts courses, for its schools.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Frances Howell School Board member Steven Blair, addressed the board in March, when he was a candidate for office. Blair said this week that proposals requiring school board approval of library books and classroom materials presume board members know more than librarians and educators.

Another measure would ban books that contain “explicit descriptions of sexual conduct,” normalized alcohol and drug use, repeated profanity and “purposeful conduct that injures the body or property of another in a manner that would be a crime.”

“The irony behind it is that I'm a pastor, and the Bible itself wouldn't pass the test,” said newly elected school board member Steven Blair, one of two board members who is not a member of the conservative majority. “The actual process of these policies is poor.”

The policy does allow board members to consider exceptions for religious texts, classic literature and nonfiction books.

Another proposed policy would require the school board to approve all library books and common learning materials before they are purchased or donated. Parents who opt in would be notified every time their child checks a new title out.

“Books are meant to be a way to discuss ideas,” said Matthew Tierney, who graduated from Francis Howell Central High School last year. “I don't think they should be banned in public schools for that reason.”

Under the proposed changes, any resident or employee of the district could challenge books from the library or teachers' classrooms. The books would then require clearance from most board members before returning to the shelves. Blair said this would create an overwhelming number of requests.

“That is a problem for both ideological reasons and practical reasons,” Blair said. “The idea is that the school board somehow knows better than librarians and people who have had the education, a false understanding of the board's expertise.”

Board members also planned to introduce another proposal that would bar teachers from discussing partisan, political or social policy matters with students — and punish them for wearing any item with a message. They decided Wednesday to delay the measure until teachers union negotiators can provide feedback.

For Tierney, it makes sense that teachers shouldn’t advocate for political candidates in class. But he said prohibiting discussions about gender identity could keep the school from being a welcoming place for all students.

“I think that school is a place where students can go to feel safe and feel included, even if they might be gay,” Tierney said. “That would help promote that sense of unity within schools.”

Martin plans to meet parents and teachers outside the school board meeting, where they’ll rally against the proposals.

“Our board will tell you that they are here to protect us from political indoctrination,” Martin said. “That's what they will tell you. In reality, silencing political speech, silencing progress, new ideas and education is a political act in itself.”

Lauren Brennecke is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio and a recent graduate of Webster University.